When to Trust, When Not to Trust in Recovery

By Olivia Pennelle 04/21/17

This post explores my personal experience of openness in the rooms of AA and the discovery that even though you have a shared disease, you may not share the same moral compass.

Someone crossing fingers behind their back.
You're vulnerable. Trust slowly.

Trust is a complex concept: some say that it is a rational response to trustworthy behavior; others a moralistic value. My own experience of trust has changed vastly from entering recovery to today. I have experienced hurt, lost friendships, determined my own values and moral compass, and wised up my naive ways. This post explores my personal experience of openness in the rooms and the discovery that even though you have a shared disease, there's widely varying moral compasses of people in recovery. Giving trust, without boundaries and trustworthy behavior, can have significant effects on a vulnerable person. Read below to see my top tips for keeping your head on in recovery.

Trust as an adolescent

When I came into recovery I was a shell of a person. I felt numb. I had no conception of who I was, never mind what my morals and values were. But, as I started to come to, I became energized by the promise of a new life and was fueled by my newly acclaimed sobriety. I attacked recovery like an adolescent Labrador hearing the words ‘walkies.’ I was eager, but boy was I naïve!

I had starved myself of any meaningful human interaction for years--other than the vacuous interactions in the workplace, the shallowness of acquaintance-type relationships, or the dysfunctional interaction with my using buddies. I was a child. My emotional development was stunted to that of my pre-using self, just 12 years old. Whilst I had managed to adult in some areas of my life, such as obtaining a job, having semblance of relationships, and living on my own, I still lacked the skills to cope with life effectively. For example, my instinct was to shut down and walk away at the first sign of trouble; I held the assumption that if someone talks to you that they like you and have your best interests at heart; and had a teenage-like crush on boys who looked at me across a meeting. I had no clue how to live an adult life; I’d been coasting along the whole time.

So when I was introduced to step work, examined my thought processes and determined what made me tick, I was astonished to realize I had a value system and moral compass all along. The trouble was that my reality lens was a little distorted, not only in terms of what made me tick, but also in terms of my interaction with the world and the people in it.

My ability to determine the appropriate level of disclosure and openness was faulty. I gushed both at meetings and with people in recovery. My concept of trust was distorted: I gave all the trust and withdrew it when someone did something to make me question their trustworthiness. My giving of trust was back-to-front. I lacked a barometer to determine who to trust and what to trust them with.

Changing my focus

Through therapy, step work and mistakes, I learned to adjust my lens to its right focus. I was able to sift through my problems and deal with them effectively. I was guided on the appropriate level of disclosure. Thinking back, I cringe at how much I over-revealed and how quickly I became physically and emotionally intimate with others. I made one hell of a lot of mistakes and assumptions.

My mistakes were trusting openly and wholeheartedly. Because of my inability to gauge appropriate levels of trust and intimacy, I gave wildly and I overshared. Consequently, I was treated badly. People-in recovery-manipulated me for money, used me to fund their social life, promised to treat me right as a friend but discarded me when I challenged their behavior. Men used me for sex. I am not saying that I don’t have a part to play. We always have a part to play. My part was my naivete and over-trusting; and trying to fill a void with the wrong substance/person.

I have learned a valuable lesson: just because we have a disease/illness/condition in common does not mean that we hold the same values or hold people in the same esteem. We have differing moral compasses. We have come from different backgrounds, we have experienced different trauma and we have been raised in different ways. Life has hardened some of us more than others. We have a similar illness and thought processes, but we are not the same. What I consider to be upstanding behavior you may not, and vice-versa. For example, driving without a license in recovery you may consider acceptable, I do not.

Trust and vulnerability

My problem is simple: we are vulnerable when we enter recovery and that doesn’t mix well with the varying moral compasses and values held. It can sometimes be a recipe for disaster. It was for me and it shook my foundations. If I were to go back, this is the advice I would offer to my newly sober self:

  1. Don’t share intimate details with everyone. Pick a sponsor who walks the walk and share your deepest intimate thoughts, memories and relationship information with them, not openly in meetings.
  2. Limit what you share in meetings. When sharing, keep to broad concepts and how you feel. For example, I have ended a relationship and I feel heartbroken. Share the intimate feelings of rejection, the personal details of the breakup with your sponsor and those closest to you.
  3. Find your tribe. Find three friends like your sponsor or therapist. Someone trustworthy, who has a sustained period of recovery, has worked through their issues and who practices a program and acts with integrity. Check in with these people regularly. They will teach you about intimacy, and they will also act as a sounding board when your sponsor isn’t available, or when you don’t agree with any sponsorship advice-sometimes they do get it wrong.
  4. Know your vulnerability. I hated it when I heard I was vulnerable and I found it difficult to accept. I had held down a job (barely) and lived alone in a city. But I learned that no matter what I thought, I was vulnerable in my first year. You are completely overturning your life and rediscovering who you are. Yes, you might have a corporate job and can manage a daily life, but emotionally you are vulnerable. If you weren’t then you wouldn’t have been using drugs or alcohol in an addictive way to cope with life. Stay out of romantic relationships for the first year. They inhibit your emotional development and may detract from the intimate friendships you can develop.
  5. Do not trust that everyone has your best interests at heart. Some people have landed with highly manipulative and deceptive behavior: some stole, lied, and cheated. I did. Others did so at a greater scale and ended up in prison. You don’t change that behavior overnight; it takes time – particularly because we lack self-honesty. Be conscious of this when trusting others. Give slowly and let trust be earned with trustworthy behavior.

Trust today

Today I am still learning. I am always astonished when someone acts out-with my values. I can still take it as a personal affront and it challenges my deepest values. Integrity and honesty are values I hold dearly. I still make the mistake of thinking that others hold them with the same importance. It hurts and that doesn’t go away. What I know is that I cannot control others behavior; I can only control my response to it. People will still act dishonestly and without integrity. What I can do is stay true to my values and act accordingly. Today I trust me and that is all that matters.

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